Día de las Muertas

Last week the city of Juarez, Mexico passed a milestone: as of October 21, the number of murders in the border town reached 2,000. That number surpassed last year's 1,600 murders, and eclipsed the pre-2008 murder average of 200 per year. Many of the victims are women, continuing an alarming trend seen there for more than 15 years. Almost all of the murders are unsolved and it's widely believed that police and government officials are, if not directly involved, actively looking the other way.

Madeleine Crozat-Williams, artist and owner of Las Manos Mágicas folk art gallery, celebrates the Day of the Dead annually. This year she has a Día de los Muertos altar dedicated to the murdered women of Juarez. The altar is a made up of a weathered wooden cross. Spoons and religious medals tied to pink ribbons hang from it. A delicate pink net wraps around the entire cross. At its base are black skulls, candles and dozens of slips of pink paper, each of which has the name of murdered woman on it.

"The spoons come from a video that was done about the Juarez women," says Crozat-Williams. "In it was a young woman who lived near the maquiladoras (factories which produce goods for American consumption). "I was really taken by the fact that these women were so poor that not only did they live in cardboard shacks, but this particular girl said that she and her sister only had a spoon, a fork, a bowl and a pot. Every morning when they left to go to the maquiladoras, they would go bury them in the sand so that they wouldn't get stolen, because people there were that poor. To me the spoons are also a symbol of nurturing and sustenance, which obviously these women who work in these maquiladoras don't have."

The women's names come from a list Crozat-Williams found online. "There's actually a website that has a list of every single murder that has been documented. Lots are undocumented, of course. The list has the year, the case number, the date, the name of the victim - although that's often desconocido (unknown) - and the age of the victim. The list is more than 80 pages long. I've printed out part of it and asked people to pick a name, write it down on a sheet of pink paper, and put it at the base of the cross.

"I hope that by going through the physical act of writing down someone's name, they'll maybe take a little bit of ownership, in terms of 'Okay, now I know about it, I'm going to tell other people about this. I'm going to hope that something's done.'"

Crozat-Williams notes that much of the violence along the border is related to the illegal drug businesses that flourish there. And while women are most often killed by strangers, a large number are killed by relatives and husbands or boyfriends. "It's amazing to me the number of young women who are listed as killed by brother, killed by father, killed by husband. That level of domestic violence makes it easier to accept the other murders. If it's going to happen in your family, then you're not going to be as shocked when it happens down the street.

"I talked to a man who was from Juarez and he said his grandfather told him that this is the way that it's always been in there. His grandfather said there have always been murders in huge numbers and nobody does anything about it. I think life is just very, very cheap there."

The Day of the Dead altar dedicated to the murdered women of Juarez will be on display at Las Manos Mágicas through November. 4819 Blossom Street. For information, call 713-802-2530 or visit www.lasmanosmagicas.com. Free.

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